CLEARWATER BEACH, Fla. — Paul Arriola and Russell Canouse have been members of D.C. United for about seven months. Arriola just turned 23. Canouse is 22 until June. Combined, they have played all of 21 MLS matches. Until last winter, when Arriola cracked Tijuana’s lineup, neither had started regularly in first- or second-division soccer.
But with the MLS opener less than two weeks away, the young Americans have grasped leadership roles that belie their age and experience.
Both have qualities endearing themselves to Coach Ben Olsen: Arriola is a feisty winger, much like his coach was, while Canouse is a midfield workaholic cut from the same blue-collar, central Pennsylvania cloth as Olsen.
Beyond expectation of performance, they have been commissioned with helping guide a 24-member team that, since last summer, has inherited 12 newcomers, including themselves and seven fresh faces this winter.
“Being a leader doesn’t mean having the captain’s band or talking with a microphone,” said Arriola, who, along with Canouse and Ian Harkes, were late arrivals to training camp because of U.S. national team duty.
“It’s the little things. The big thing for me is staying positive and keeping the team positive. For both of us, we’re coming into a time in our careers where we are young but we’re here to make a difference. Sometimes that’s the way we are going to lead — by making a difference.”
Olsen has not announced his captain; no one wore the armband in the first two preseason friendlies. Defender Steve Birnbaum is the incumbent. Danish goalkeeper David Ousted and French defender Frederic Brillant bring years of first-team experience.
Regardless of the final choice, Olsen will request direction from several players, young and old.
“I want to feel this group out first,” he said of the captain decision. “It’s a little overrated.”
“What do you need a captain for? We’ve got a lot of guys who will lead.”
That includes Arriola and Canouse. Arriola has a big personality: He is chatty and engaging, and someday may become a motivational speaker. Fluent in Spanish, Arriola is a conduit for the newcomers from Latin America.
Canouse is engaging but quieter, with “a tough-guy mentality in the way he goes about his business,” Olsen said. “They are going to lead in their own way. They are both very positive in their outlook in both life and the squad.”
Said Canouse: “Even though we are both young, anyone can take over and have an impact on a game and impact off the field by setting the right example and getting guys ready for the season.”
Arriola and Canouse were roommates at the recent U.S. camp in Carson, Calif.
“Unfortunately, yeah,” Arriola said with a grin while glancing at Canouse.
And in Clearwater, as well? “Unfortunately, yeah,” he repeated, this time drawing a reaction from Canouse.
Though they are from opposite sides of the country — Arriola from Chula Vista, Calif., Canouse from Lancaster, Pa. — and followed different career paths, they have known each other since youth national team camps. Both bypassed NCAA soccer to play abroad: Arriola in Mexico with Tijuana, Canouse in Germany with Hoffenheim and Bochum.
United acquired them hours apart last August, just before the summer transfer window closed.
“We got thrown into the puzzle and tried to grind out the rest of the season,” Arriola said. “Now, it’s nice to have a new start.”
Arriola is Olsen’s first-choice right wing for the March 3 debut at Orlando. Canouse, currently sidelined with a sprained knee, is competing for time in a deep central midfield position.
The duo, as well as Harkes, got a head start on MLS fitness by reporting to U.S. camp about two weeks before the MLS preseason began. In the Jan. 28 friendly, a 0-0 draw with Bosnia, Arriola played the second half, Canouse did not get into the match and Harkes wasn’t in uniform. It was the 16th international appearance by Arriola and the first call-ups for Canouse and Harkes.
From afar, they thought about the work necessary to rebound from United’s last-place finish in 2017.
“There were bonds forming last season,” Canouse said. “Any time there are new players, it can take a little time. It’s something that develops over the entire season, but you want to have a good grip on it in preseason and build on it throughout the year.”
Notes: One minute after D.C. conceded the equalizer, Luciano Acosta scored in the 89th for a 2-1 preseason victory over Philadelphia on Saturday in St. Petersburg, Fla. Darren Mattocks scored in the 14th minute, his second goal in as many tuneups. United will face second-division Jacksonville on Wednesday in Clearwater.